Being a Fully Ethical Conductor When It is NOT Safe to Share by Larry Ng

This article offers an important reflection on Playback Theatre in a world where authoritarian intolerance is becoming common, threatening to silence the stories of ordinary citizens. Larry Ng’s insights are both inspiring and pragmatic. The techniques and ethical principles he describes potentially allow us not only to continue sharing Playback Theatre in situations of political repression but also to navigate unsafe conditions that may arise anywhere. 

Being a Fully Ethical Conductor When It is NOT Safe to Share

Being a conductor in Playback Theatre is enjoyable and meaningful, especially when you feel that you are approaching the heart of the story during the interview and assisting the formation of red threads of the dialogue among stories throughout the performance. It is like the joy and satisfaction of being a gardener, facilitating the growth of something precious and amazing, and making connections for the formation of harmony out of a richness of diversity. But Playback conducting is also an exhausting and extremely challenging job, especially when the performance happens in a setting where the audience may not feel safe enough to share.

Ideally, this should not be the case for Playback Theatre, because we Playbackers 1) trust the spontaneity of the audience as potential storytellers; 2) expect ourselves to be able to create a space safe enough to share; 3) treasure their spontaneous decision to share; and 4) assume that the audience has chosen to be present. However, the latter two conditions may not be always present. Only the first two are totally under our control.

In the real world, there are situations in which audience members may not feel safe to share freely, regardless of how much effort the performing team makes and how well they work. There are also many situations where a cautious and responsible enough conductor should not assume that the situation is in fact safe, just because the teller feels so.

There are also tricky situations in which an audience, or at least part of an audience, are not there because they’ve chosen to come: the Playback team is hired or invited by another party with more institutional power. In such a case, even when the performance has been arranged out of good will, the actual show will still be tricky and sticky due to the asymmetric power relationship between the organizers and the audience.

From my practical experiences in the last decade, I can think of three kinds of such challenging situations, the reality of which is often either overlooked, underestimated or avoided by Playbackers. Reflection upon such situations can benefit not only the conductor but also all Playbackers: such reflection can make us face the reality during the process.

I will share in this article some of the discoveries that have been helpful to me as a conductor in unsafe conditions, namely, the possibilities and skills for conducting around the unspeakable or the unmentionable “X”, and conducting through metaphor.

Playback Theatre under certain social-politically sensitive conditions

The first kind of such situation is Playback performance in a social-politically sensitive context. Because Playback Theatre generally emphasizes community, interpersonal relationship, dialogue and inclusiveness; and probably because many Playback practices did not develop in highly politicalized social contexts with a strong influence from the regime, Playbackers and Playback Theatre tend to be apolitical and overcharged with a sense of warmth and peacefulness. Therefore, the “normal” way to do Playback Theatre would appear unprepared to face existing social-political influences in context, especially when such influences come from the current regime itself.

One such Playback performance in a social-politically sensitive scenario that I experienced was an outdoor performance in the frontline of protest related to a social movement. The purpose of the performance was to provide a platform for the public to process their experiences and emotions. Under the spirit of sharing, a performance of this kind does not aim at advocacy directly, but more at social dialogue in which not only people supporting the social movement are welcome, but also people with different political opinions or personal experiences.  Ideally, they have a chance of conversation in which they can exchange perspectives and feelings.

Art installation: umbrellas as a symbol of peaceful resistance and a practical shield against teargas and other threats.

My experience of this kind of outdoor performance was around ten years ago, 2014, in Hong Kong, during the intense period that many people now call the “Umbrella Movement”. The audience was a mixture of those who were interested or curious and members of the general public who knew nothing about what we were doing. Although it was a time when people in Hong Kong still believed that we had so-called “freedom of speech” as it is understood internationally—the belief that we can express opinions about politics and society freely without any political-legal consequences–it was still hard for audience members to actually share.  This was because we performed in an open space on the street with pedestrians moving around, and the atmosphere at the frontline site of the Occupy protest was generally tense. People joining the social movement there were cautious about the possibility that police or gangsters, hired to make chaos in the crowd, might appear at any time.

It was precious to have a social dialogue like this in a time when people had little chance to process their feelings and experiences about the ongoing social movement.

With luck and blessing, despite these difficulties, it was finally a satisfying experience. Deep stories about how the social situation impacted personal lives and family relationships were shared, and a small part of the audience that stayed from the beginning to the end came closer to each other and formed a stronger bonding. Many of them continued their exchanges after the performance. Just considering such a result, it looked alright. It was precious to have a social dialogue like this in a time when people had little chance to process their feelings and experiences about the ongoing social movement.

Nevertheless, this may have been a “lucky”, temporary, and hence especially precious occasion. The situation became even more complicated in the following years and the scenario is totally different nowadays. Since the National Security Law was passed and activated on 1st July 2020 in Hong Kong (i.e., six years after the “Umbrella Movement”), our “freedom of speech” was “redefined” and “reinterpreted” officially in Hong Kong. Outdoor Playback Theatre related to any social-political theme became highly risky, almost impossible, for most of the people.

“Lennon Wall:” social dialogue about the future of Hong Kong.

We Playbackers must be reflective and cautious about whether it is still suitable for us to perform, considering the possible consequences; and how to do it if we do choose to go ahead. If done casually, this kind of outdoor public performance will become “unethical” and “irresponsible” because it can put not only the performers but also the audience or even their relatives and friends at risk if they share their stories in an open, public arena. Any personal exposure in public settings can be unpredictably dangerous for a person and those in relation to this person. Even indoor Playback Theatre raises controversial issues of ethics and safety for similar reasons. As a reality, it would be problematic in Hong Kong now even making indoor Playback performances in NGOs related to social welfare, or in their venues, because the social welfare field is a target area where this new law is enforced.

Sadly, cases like this, or in even more extreme conditions, are not new in human history. There are many other places in today’s world in which Playback Theatre would encounter similar conditions. Thus, maybe it is really time for Playbackers to seriously reflect about both the ethical and technical issues of conducting and performing “personal stories” publicly (indoor or outdoor) under constraining social-political circumstances in which public discussion of public affairs becomes sensitive; and under any regime that takes a genuinely free “freedom of speech” as a threatening enemy.

To help us think about such situations, simply remember the historical periods of Nazism or Communist East Germany when secret police and “unofficial informants” were prevalent. Would sharing “personal” stories in “public” have been safe, and should we naively encourage the public to share their personal stories openly in such contexts?

Since the birth of Playback Theatre, for almost five decades, many Playbackers, or the “mainstream” of Playback Theatre, have had the “luck” and “luxury” to explore this beautiful practice in social contexts that are closer to the ideal conditions for Playback Theatre, without any need to be highly sensitive and cautious about the social-political risk. In such contexts a “good enough”[1] Playback Theatre show is possible so long as Playbackers create a safe space for the audiences to share. But now, with the whole world getting crazier in the last couple of years, we have been forced to become aware of underestimated issues of Playback Theatre in the face of the social-political reality.

Are there other ways out if we still treasure our right to share personal stories in a community context? If we do not want to give it up totally, even if a regime that strives for a kind of totalitarian domination may utilize these opportunities for checking and controlling people?

For a Playback conductor, conducting in social-politically sensitive circumstances raises both ethical and technical questions. Technically, how can we invite stories from the public when the social-political atmosphere is unsafe, penetrating even corners in daily life? Ethically, how can we protect our tellers, especially during the interview? They may be willing to share, but perhaps not fully cautious about the potential risks of sharing, not just for themselves but also for their relatives and friends. Are there techniques and skills that can make sharing possible and safer, despite such concerns and limitations?

As both crisis and chance, it is time for Playback Theatre and Playbackers to undergo an evolution to become more social-politically sensitive.

A road sign expressing the Umbrella Movement’s core goal.

Playback Theatre in workplaces

Political regime is not the only source of pressure that can make Playback performance challenging and risky, especially conducting. I want to discuss two kinds of challenging situations that often happen in relatively “peaceful” and democratic societies.

One such kind of setting is a performance within a retreat or training day of an organization, where the audience consists of colleagues of similar rank or from different ranks (implying that the seniors/bosses may be present). Self-exposure in any degree in workplace settings can be risky. This type of Playback Theatre application is quite common: some Playback companies find it a good way to gain income that can sustain their companies and the livelihood of the performers. However, practitioners may not be aware of the ethical (or ethical-technical) cautions required in such cases.

The sharing of both personal stories and stories about work may bring unexpected negative effects to the tellers or those who work with the tellers. In addition, it is often not the choice of the people in such settings to join the Playback Theatre performance, as it is embedded in their staff trainings. They come because it is the order of their boss, or the event is arranged by the human resource department of the corporation and it is part of their duties to attend.

In such cases, it is technically not easy to invite stories from the audience. Stories that are offered may tend to be superficial. Ethically, the conductor has also a responsibility to protect the teller by skillfully reminding him/her (in an explicit or indirect manner) about the nature of this setting in order to increase the teller’s awareness about what to share and how to share, without killing the teller’s impulse.

At the same time, the Playback team and especially the conductor need to remember that they have also an ethical and professional responsibility to fulfill the contract with the organization that has hired them to do the job for its benefit, or for the expected functions from its perspective. The conductor here is in the middle of tension because he/she has a double and possibly contradictory ethical responsibility both to tellers (mostly employees) and to the corporation.

We conductors sometimes think of ourselves as skillful “story-hunters.” But what is more important is how the people, including both teller and audience, are benefited meaningfully by the sharing of stories (while also respecting the purpose of the client organization). A responsible conductor does not put the teller at risk just because the conductor wants to prove his/her success by getting a story. The conductor is “professional” in such a way that he/she should have a higher awareness about safety than the teller, so that the teller can really rely on the conductor’s conducting. “Professional” here means first of all “ethical” and then “ethically skillful” (skillful enough to serve ethical purposes), instead of merely “skillful,” I believe.

Playback Theatre in school settings

Another type of challenging setting in which an audience may not feel safe and may not come to the performance voluntarily is a school setting, especially secondary schools with teenagers as audience. Once again, these are very common, so that Playbackers often find themselves performing in such settings.

Self-exposure is complicated for teenagers. They love and hate visibility at the same time. In group scenarios in the presence of peers, they have high anxiety about how their peers see them. They fear judgment and prejudice. Therefore, school performances are very hard to conduct. In addition, quite often, the schools here in Hong Kong usually request Playbackers to perform for large audiences; it is common to have 80 to 160 audience members, because of managerial thinking about “cost-effectiveness” and “impact factors” as required by funding and distributing resources.

Not only is it very hard for teenagers to share in such a large group of peers, but also the external environment is often problematic. Very often the sight lines of the audience are terrible, with no differentiation of level in the auditorium. This makes the audience easily detached or distracted from the show and brings additional difficulties for doing Playback Theatre.

…the organizers in their institutional roles often insist their own norms, with their own administrative calculations and agenda.

This raises also a question about why Playbackers agree to such problematic conditions and whether they have tried their best to negotiate with the school to fight for an environment with more reasonable conditions. Nevertheless, there are also occasions in which Playbackers face a dilemma between not wanting to compromise and grasping a rare chance to promote Playback Theatre and provide services to certain populations in need. Meanwhile the organizers in their institutional roles often insist their own norms, with their own administrative calculations and agenda.

Besides the difficulties in school settings, another challenge unrelated to the environment is the cultural fact that teenagers in this country (probably similar in different Asian areas) are generally not used to expressing their feelings. A majority of them lack the “emotional literacy” to articulate their inner lives and internal reactions to different life situations and to the world. This is a challenge especially for the conductor, but it is not a bad one because this makes Playback Theatre even more meaningful if we can open a space for them to move beyond their usual coping mode and establish an atmosphere in which they can feel safe enough to share.

The culminating public performance in a long-term project with adolescents.

In response to all these factors, there are a few things I especially pay attention to when I conduct teenagers, besides the basic tasks of conducting:

  • I have to fully utilize my skills to assist them to articulate not only the story but also the feelings at different moments; metaphors are usually very helpful in this aspect.
  • I have to help them to catch those “moments” which they themselves might easily overlook, ignore or even devalue. I invite them to focus and get into those moments, so that they don’t rush through them, telling the story like news reporting.
  • I have to listen with an embodied emotional attunement, so as to help the teenagers to “feel” their feelings concretely as they are mirrored back by me. In Psychodrama’s terms, I have to “double” for them, especially physically, while I conduct their sharing. (A personal note: I learnt a lot about this skill/quality/possibility from Veronica Needa, whom I respect very much from the bottom of my heart as a Playback conductor, and who passed away at the time of this writing. It is a great loss for Playback community…) Such embodied attunement can also make teens feel “permission” to feel on the unconscious level. It is important for them to feel they are being listened to concretely and physically.
  • I have to explicitly honor aspects of the story, or even the story itself which the adolescents consider as “trivial” or “nothing special”. I need to listen to their unspoken moods and have a sharp eye to see the “meanings” and “values” therein. I need to find different ways to articulate them, so that the teenagers can see what they might have missed on the conscious level when they told the story. As a conductor, I have to value their stories more than they did at first.
  • I have to show clearly and explicitly my respect to them as an equal human being, because in school settings here, “students” are seen as subordinate beings with lower status. I need to make an additional effort to balance the pre-existing unbalance.

Nevertheless, having done all this, the conducting is still difficult and delicate, because the environment is not totally safe and their participation is embedded in an asymmetry of power that is almost inevitable, just as it is in the settings of workplace, or in the social-politically sensitive occasions, which we mentioned earlier. Therefore, the development of new conducting skills for such challenging situations are needed, practically and ethically speaking.

Exploring possible responses to challenges for conducting

In response to the sad fact in Hong Kong that “freedom of speech” was officially “redefined” to a version that is detached from the global understanding of the concept, making public sharing of personal stories sensitive or even dangerous, I have started to think seriously about how Playback Theatre can still be possible, and how conducting can adapt. Even if political surveillance becomes even more radical and all-encompassing, we will try our best not to give up sharing our stories via Playback Theatre. I ask myself: Are there still ways for the teller to tell their stories, indirectly but at least safely, where actors and musicians can still have “clear enough” materials to play back?

Yes, it is not ideal even if it is possible, because Playback Theatre inherently encourages direct, authentic and frank sharing of personal stories in a state free from anxiety. But in a situation that is not ideal but nevertheless real, is it possible for us to share indirectly and still authentically? Will it be at least better than nothing? Will there be still authentic connections among teller, conductor, actors, musicians and audience?

From such thinking, I have started to experiment and develop two directions of conducting techniques and strategies:

1) conducting a personal story around something unspeakable (e.g., secret, trauma, etc.)

 2) conducting a personal story totally dressed as a metaphor/metaphorical story, in order to prepare in advance for the worst social-political situation to come. Interestingly, later I found that some of these discoveries and new devices can also be applied in workplace and school settings, the other challenging settings mentioned above.

Conducting personal stories around something unspeakable

By personal stories with something unspeakable, I refer to the kind of sharing when the teller thinks or feels that a part of the story cannot or should not be told in a public circumstance, but they still want to share their personal story in a realistic manner. There are three main principles in conducting a story where a key part cannot be disclosed:

It is still possible for the conductor to guide the teller to tell clearly about how he/she was affected in manifold ways by that unspeakable part of experience (e.g., the secret, trauma, etc.), an unknown X for the performing team;

The flow or skeleton of the whole personal journey on both meaning and feeling level can still be traced and outlined;

Facing this unknown X, the conductor, actors and musicians may focus on where would the heart of story be, instead of what the heart of story is.

In practice, questions like the following would be helpful during the conductor’s interview:

Was that event something you expected and were prepared to face, or did it break out suddenly?

How would you describe yourself in reaction when that event was happening?”,

What did you say in your heart when it happened?

What impact does that event bring you, or how was your life affected?”, etc.

These questions can help to go around the unspeakable, while the effects of the unspeakable can still be disclosed and described in relation to the other parts of the story as a context. In this way the heart of the story can still be located and felt. What concerns us is the teller’s life or experience of life as it is expressed via his/her story, or narration of his/her story, as it is affected by that unspeakable incident, instead of the incident itself.

In addition, for this kind of story, it is often helpful and safer to firstly ask the teller how he/she would sum up the story as a whole. How would he or she describe the story if we saw it from a wide shot like an outline? This gives the conductor, the teller, the other performers and the audience a sense of the landscape of the story prior to going through the journey. The teller can also get a sense that he/she is in total control about the telling of the story, the distance that he/she maintains during storytelling, and how the story is told, while the conductor can have a sharper sense about where there could be sensitive or intense areas of the story, what kind of caution would be required, and how he/she would be able to support the teller correspondingly. In certain problematic settings, such as those mentioned earlier, a conductor who has sufficient social awareness or sensitivity to group dynamics may sense at the outset that this story will include an “unspeakable” or “unmentionable” element and thus chooses to use these questions from the outset. Or, even in an ordinary public performance, a conductor may also sense such need during the initial greeting and first few interactions with the teller, and then decide on this initial question—for example, if a teller appears to be in an ambivalent state, raising his/her hand to share but showing anxiety or hesitation and not knowing how to start once he/she sits in the teller’s chair.

Conducting totally via metaphors

The second direction of my experimenting is conducting totally in metaphorical media, so that the teller can share his or her personal story with a magic dress of metaphor. Yes, it is radical, but I imagined this possibility because reality itself is turning to be radical. It is not unlikely that in the coming future any sharing of personal stories in public occasions will become more and more dangerous in Hong Kong. It could also be useful knowledge for conductors in extreme situations elsewhere under the kind of regime that most people around the globe would call “totalitarian.” (However, in some countries, the sad and absurd reality is that this word, or other similar words, simply do not exist, or are not allowed to exist, according to the official ideology). I imagine that even in such radical contexts, the natural need and impulse to share personal experience would still exist; therefore, as a “compromise” for survival while still keeping a bit of humanity, can we share via metaphors completely, as an alternative or practical compromise? If so, how should conducting skills be adjusted accordingly? Can this kind of sharing still achieve authentic connection and sense of togetherness?

Actors in True Heart Theatre, London

During exploration and experimentation with some colleagues and students, I find that sharing in this metaphorical manner is possible. It is similar to what I often do in my clinical practice as a drama therapist, especially with my clients in their adolescence, when I focus mainly on whether the teller can express him/herself and his/her feelings in this metaphorical manner. Despite being indirect, this way of sharing is creative, for both the teller and conductor.

To begin my conducting in this “compromised” manner of indirectness, I often start by asking “What do you look like and feel like in this story, if you describe yourself by a metaphor?”, “What does the situation feel like at the beginning of the story if you say it through a metaphor?”, or “Metaphorically speaking, how would you describe the world of your story? Is it like a forest, a ship on the ocean, somewhere above the clouds, a maze in the underworld, or…..?” Compared with the ordinary, direct way of conducting, more effort is required to assist the teller to develop the metaphor and the world in which this metaphorical story unfolds, and also to find the metaphorical images of other significant characters in the story, especially because not all tellers are used to expressing him/herself in this way.

this method tries to avoid enacting a story abstractly or with a random series of metaphors, hoping that the teller will project meaning onto it.

After that, it is crucial for the conductor to give special care to the explication of the narrative structure and dramatic moments, with even more attention on these items than how we would do in “normal” conducting. Otherwise the metaphor may turn into a very nice, imaginative image which is very hard for the actors to enact as a series of happenings unfolding in time. In other words, this method tries to avoid enacting a story abstractly or with a random series of metaphors, hoping that the teller will project meaning onto it. Meaning is considered more than mood, and narrative structure and dramaturgy are considered to be the container or skeleton of meaning. Sometimes, after the momentum of the metaphor has been kicked off and the teller is in a creative state of indirect expression and association, it is still helpful to guide the teller to think about a key moment, or several key moments in this “metaphorical story”, as the anchor(s) for the actors and musicians to dig deeper to catch the underlying feelings and humanity.

Experientially, sharing in such a metaphorical manner can allow the tellers to express themselves, not just as a catharsis but also as a chance to re-articulate and to process their past once again, because the teller knows well about the projective relevance between the metaphorical images and his/her experiences in the real story. Nevertheless, the main challenge for the conductor is on behalf of the actors (for musicians it is easier) and the audience, to help them catch the feelings and make sense of the sharing. In any kind of Playback Theatre, it is important for the conductor to remember that he or she is responsible for taking care of these two parties as well as the teller. However, when it comes to this kind of metaphorical storytelling, it becomes crucial. If the actors get lost, they may not know how to dramatize the enactment effectively; if the audience feels lost, they will lose interest and detach from the teller’s sharing, and hence the teller will lose support from the community.

Therefore, when conducting a story through metaphor, on a technical level, I would keep reminding myself to pay extra attention to 1) explicating the narrative/dramatic structure of the story, 2) highlighting what kind of dramatic moments exist in the story, and 3) zooming in on key images that are emotionally charged within the metaphorical narration, because such structure, moments and images can help both the actors and audience to grasp the meanings and feelings, and connect with the humanity in the story. Especially for the actors, I also need to guide the teller to articulate some key lines for the metaphorical characters. These lines can go beyond the metaphorical images and touch the same humanity and deep feeling that the teller would express if sharing in a direct, non-metaphorical manner, without leaking too much information. In other words, these lines are shared by the metaphorical characters and the actual characters in teller’s real story, so that they can have the same power no matter if they are said by a metaphorical character or a realistic character. Thus, it is a useful way that the conductor can help the actors during metaphorical conducting.

Possibilities of wider applications

For me, developing skills in these two directions of conducting were originally just a preparation for the probable upcoming hard time in my homeland’s future. But later I realized that some of these skills can be very useful in other situations when the teller wants to share but does not have a sense of safety or internal clarity. In such applications, these skills may be used in a modified way, mixed with our usual more direct way of conducting. They can be combined in different proportions.

For example, when working with teenage students in school settings, as mentioned earlier, there are some tellers who may want to share but once they sit on the teller’s chair, they suddenly feel so nervous and unsafe that they do not know how to start, even if the conductor helps by asking “When did the story start?” or “How would you describe yourself in the story?”. Or similarly, when the sharing comes close to an intense part, the teller may fall into moments of stuckness or blankness, because of both the emotional intensity and a heightened awareness of the presence of peers that amplifies everything. In such cases, the skills of asking indirectly around the unspeakable part, or the skills of asking questions through metaphors did help me a lot. Similarly, in those staff retreat settings, also mentioned earlier, when staff members feel unsafe to share directly, I can also ask for sharing about merely feelings first, and then try to “concretize” the situation or the story in a metaphorical or partly metaphorical way. On the other hand, if a staffer has inadequate awareness about the potential risk of leaking information or expressing opinions during his/her sharing, I as conductor can also guide the teller to share in a metaphorical way that is more indirect and hence safer. Or, if the sharing stays on a realistic level, I can ask the teller about the impact experienced by him/her, how he/she reacted, and what happened afterwards instead of going into the details of a sensitive incident.

In other words, there are many possibilities for these skills to be used so that the conductor can better fulfill his/her ethical responsibility to protect the tellers in situations that are not ideal for sharing personal stories publicly, which are more common than we would wish or expect.

Some last remarks

In an atmosphere with safety and inclusiveness, people can share directly without worries, and in Playback Theatre we encourage people to do so, whenever such conditions are present. It is a paradise on earth that we hope for and strive for, and in many places in the world this paradise does exist–and is taken for granted. In such lucky circumstances, if the performing team does a good enough job in creating a safe and respectful space that welcomes any stories, people can enjoy sharing directly.

Nevertheless, in our world nowadays when situations become more and more complicated in many places around the globe, the social conditions may make such an ideal scenario impossible even if the performing team has done its best. Therefore, special conducting techniques and capacities that are adaptive to difficult situations may be needed. Moreover, even in peaceful, democratic societies, less than ideal settings are not only possible but also quite common. As described earlier, Playback Theatre in workplaces or in schools, for example, are not rare at all and ideal conditions for Playback Theatre are rarely fulfilled in these scenarios. Whether we are aware of the imperfect conditions and whether we have enough strategies and skills to handle these situations practically and ethically, are key questions.

It is also an important ethical issue to consider carefully beforehand whether we should say “no” to an invitation if the essential conditions to do it safely and meaningfully are simply absent and the risk is too high for both the performing team and the audience. It is true that, as a conductor, it is important to be flexible enough to adapt to various situations, but it is even more important for the conductor to take care of the safety and wellbeing of the teller, the performers, the audience and him/herself. This professional reliability is the ground for the audience and the team to trust the performance. A technically competent person who is not cautious and thoughtful enough can be very harmful.

Thanks to the flexibility of the arts, the multiplicity of human expression, and our spontaneity actualizing itself in creativity, which help us to preserve this hope and keep on taking actions, such efforts, like little stars, are still possible.

The weight of being a conductor is that this role stands and acts at the border, the interface, between the Playback sharing-and-performing space and the (public) reality. When the world is going crazier and crazier and the public space becomes more and more dangerous, the job of conducting will become harder and harder. Maybe it is time for us to develop new skills, as the luxury of sharing in public free from fear or worries is disappearing.

It sounds heavy and sad. It is frustrating and annoying. However, seen from another angle, exploring different compromises and alternatives is also a sincere expression of commitment to making connection and enriching each other through sharing our life experiences via Playback Theatre. So long as we can still share in some ways, we can maintain our deep yearning to share our stories and our hope to share more freely, with less fear and anxiety.

Thanks to the flexibility of the arts, the multiplicity of human expression, and our spontaneity actualizing itself in creativity, which help us to preserve this hope and keep on taking actions, such efforts, like little stars, are still possible. They are especially precious and beautiful in times of darkness. The darkness everywhere may continue to expand, but the sincerity, resilience and flexibility of Playback Theatre will also continue, I still believe.



[1] See “What is Good Playback Theatre?” by Jo Salas in Personal Stories in Public Spaces: Essays on Playback Theatre by Its Founders by Fox & Salas. Tusitala Publishing, 2021.


Larry Ng is a theatre practitioner specialized in physical theatre, mime and mask, and is also a registered drama therapist under NADTA, and a certified Feldenkrais Method practitioner. He has been practicing Playback Theatre since 2009, and completed Leadership training in 2012. He teaches Playback Theatre internationally in different cities in Europe, Middle East and Asia, especially in the areas of artistry, actor training, conducting for social dialogue and using Playback Theatre in therapeutic contexts, which are areas of his long-term interest of research. Besides developing different pedagogies to teach Playback Theatre for different populations, in recent years he started to explore how to do Playback Theatre effectively and ethically in adverse conditions.